Learning from Objects
Introduction to the Schools of Visual Arts' study collections
Mads Kullberg
PhD, New Carlsberg Foundation research fellow
Schools of Visual Arts, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts
Mads Kullberg (DK) holds a PhD on the topic of safeguarding and documenting ephemeral art and cultural heritage. His research as New Carlsberg Foundation research fellow at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Visual Arts revolves around organization, management, cataloguing, and use of the academy’s collections.
Reading time: 16 minutes.

The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts was founded in 1754, and the oldest collections date back to those days, where the art schools had a strong emphasis on transmitting classical ideals. Similar to many other academies, founded from the 14th to the 18th century, the historic art collection and the study collections of the Danish academy reflected a classical thinking and were organised around a specific canon of works and similar approaches to collecting.

Classicism, however, is no longer seen as a barrier against renewal, and other ways of approaching the classical parts of the collection are now possible without necessarily subjugating to traditional (conservative) thinking. Between then and now artistic ideals and teaching practices have evolved, and the same can be set of how we think of and use the collections.

Today the academy collections are sources of artistic reflections, and for the institution they are an important part of its heritage, shedding light on the history of the academy and the history of teaching art. From the beginning collecting has been a central activity of the academy, mainly centered around the fine arts collection and the collection of antique and renaissance plaster casts. While the fine arts collection is largely a result of the academy’s formal activities, the study collections have been formed in a more direct relation to the educational principles of the academy’s art schools. Those principles have of course changed over time. Viewing the collections as sediments of those changes, they may bring forth valuable information about how artistic education has developed at the art schools, but it might also contribute to new ways of thinking objects in relation to learning.

The plaster cast collection. The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Visual Arts. Photo by Mads Kullberg

The complex of the art academy collections consists of numerous smaller and larger holdings of art works, study objects, and archival material associated with the The Royal Academy of the Fine Arts or the schools of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Since the academy itself has undergone numerous reorganisations, the collections are not united today, but are managed by independent institutions, still, or once, under the umbrella of the art academy. Parts of the collections have also been either handed over or deposited to institutions outside of the academy, like The Royal Cast Collection, The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, or The Museum of Ancient Art.

For this presentation, however, the main focus will be on the two large study collections now belonging to the Schools of Visual Arts, namely the school of graphic arts’ study collection and the plaster cast collection.

The plaster cast collection

At the time when the academy was founded, a wide range of plaster casts was acquired to exhibit and use for teaching purposes at the academy’s art schools. The first group arrived when the academy moved into Charlottenborg Castle in 1753, as 25 casts were sanctioned by King Frederik V to be transferred from Christiansborg, the royal castle, to Charlottenborg. They were exhibited in the grand hall of Charlottenborg (Riddersalen) for roughly 150 years (some years are not accounted for). The grand hall, the stairs, and the gate were rebuilt in 1828 (much to the current state) by the architect C.F. Hansen. After the rebuilding the exhibition was reset, and the Parthenon frieze installed on the shorter sides of the room (later, following a restauration in 1962, on all four sides). On this occasion the academy had ordered a complete set of Thorvaldsen’s neoclassical sculptures to be placed, partly in the grand hall, partly in adjacent rooms, matching the new architecture and the antique works of the collection (Frederiksen 2017).

In 1883 the cast collection moved to the newly constructed exhibition building behind the castle (today housing the National Art Library and Kunsthal Charlottenborg). Casts were still acquired, but things were about to change. The new exhibition was far from satisfying, and in 1895 a large part of the collection, around 500 pieces, were handed over to the newly established Royal Cast Collection1, and even more transfers followed in 1905 (Jørnæs 1970) - some as late as in the 1990s. The decision to hand over half the cast collection (according to ministerial order) must be seen in the light of how rapidly the collection had grown. By the end of the 19th century the collection was almost 11 times its initial size adding up to around 1200 pieces and its chronological span was much wider than originally intended. The collection strategy of the 19th century had more or less been based on taste with more attention to its educational purpose than art historical trends. The general interest in the collection was low amongst the new generation of artists, and since it had more or less outgrown itself, the transfer paved the way for a proper systematic representation and art historical approach to the moved casts.

The remaining casts were scattered around the academy premises (offices and studios) or were put in storage. Other casts were already used in the studios, so the distribution of the antique and renaissance casts was not a whole new approach, but rather a dismantling of the grand exhibition format. Although this arguably can be seen as a significant drop in status for the cast collection, another kind of informal significance was slowly attributed to the collection. The handling of the collection became less organized and centralized. This exposed the casts to random vandalism, giveaways, throwaways, and generally poor treatment, putting a strain on the collection over the years; but nonetheless it managed to survive the 20th century comparably successfully. When schools and labs were reorganized or discontinued, casts were stowed in the main collection managed by the School of Sculpture. For instance, from the School of Anatomy plaster came écorchés, when the activities associated with the school formally ceased in 19652. From other schools: architectural fragments, casts of inscriptions, and other items were also added to the collection.

The plaster cast collection. The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Visual Arts. Photo by Mads Kullberg

In the early 1980s an effort was made to bring back attention on and resume proper care for the cast collection. Initially driven by associate professor Poul Holm Olsen (ass.prof. 1955-1990), who, due to a personal interest in saving the collection, gathered many of the casts and set up a display of them in the cellar below the Hirschsprung building. Another significant step was taken in 1988, when a plaster cast committee was founded, consisting of professor Bjørn Nørgaard (prof. 1985-94), Hanne Marcussen, Steen Bjarnhof, Marie-Louise Berner and later also associate professor Pontus Kjerrman.

New versions were made of many of the “lost” casts, and today the collection(including items that have been deposited elsewhere3) counts well over 1000 large and small items. The new complete register4 was finalised in 2002 under professor Morten Stræde (prof. 1994-2003), and although the items themselves are not on public display, they have nonetheless been subject to numerous academic and artistic investigations. For instance in 2004 when former professor Bjørn Nørgaard, archaeologist Jan Zahle and Pontus Kjerrman, celebrating the 250 years anniversary of the academy, recreated the “antique hall” (the grand hall) with the setup of plaster casts and paintings, as it was in the 19th century, and at the same time exhibiting contemporary plaster sculptures in dialogue with the collection items. 10 years before a similar historical curatorial approach had been taken to the cast, but on a smaller scale organised around new works taking influence from the whole chronological scale of the collection.

Today students have access to the casts, courses in plaster casting are still held at the School of Sculpture, and the cast collection is actively used. Plaster is seen as a flexible, lightweight, and democratic material, well suited for contemporary art practice.

The School of Graphic Arts’ study collection

In 1920 professor Aksel Jørgensen established a new school of graphic arts at the art academy. The school was established at a time with a growing interest in elevating printmaking from mere craftsmanship to a more artistic domain. It was a logical step, since an interest in print techniques was growing in the Danish art scene. Grafisk Kunstnersamfund, later recording several of Jørgensen’s pupils as members, was founded in 1909, a sure sign that a graphic arts profession had been formed.

With the graphic art school Jørgensen welcomed an art form that needed special workshop facilities to develop - and in doing so the school participated in raising the Danish graphic arts to a new level. In the first several years the graphic arts school functioned as both a workshop for the community of Danish graphic artists and an art school capable of educating graphic artists at the same level of training as the other artistic disciplines offered at the academy’s art schools. From the beginning Jørgensen focused on establishing a study collection with examples of a wide range of techniques and artistic styles. During the first decades the archive grew with works and items, bought by the teachers on their travels, in auctions, or produced by themselves - as well as student works.

The collection, counting around 4000 leaves, has works dating back to the 16th century, and holds significant works of art historical value. In that respect it is reminiscent of a former collection5 of prints and drawings, established by the art academy in the first half of the 19th century, but founded in a much more collective spirit than the older collection.

The School of Graphic Arts’ study collection. Photos by Mads Kullberg

The graphic techniques are, as Aksel Jørgensen pointed out, in many ways a collective matter (Det Kongelige Akademi for de Skønne Kunster 1949, 48), and the will to exchange knowledge and ideas is significantly visible in the focus on student works. From the start students were encouraged to hand in their own works to the archive, and this makes the collection interesting, not only from an art historic point of view, but also for its recording of techniques, processes, and drafts. The first print produced at the school, in November 1920 by Einer Johansen, is included in the collection along with hundreds of other works by former and present students. Still, today’s students are handing over works to the collection, thus keeping the collection growing with contemporary works and art historical potentiality.

Since multiple print techniques and styles are represented in the collection, it is often used in teaching sessions at the school of graphic arts and as study material for students, teachers, and researchers. Works from the collection are also occasionally lent out for exhibitions, most recently to the exhibition “Becoming Animal”, curated by former professor Claus Carstensen.

Pedagogical principles

Within the first 100 years of the academy’s existence, the earliest pedagogical principles of the academy’s art schools are roughly characterized by a strong emphasis on copying (Salling and Smidt 2004, 52).

Throughout the years there have been many reforms of the education. In the 1830s architect and professor G.F. Hetsch questioned the tradition of handed down teaching after example (Meldahl 1904, 214), up to then considered as _the _foundation of all teaching at the academy. It was not a complete break with copying, but rather an ambition to give the student a better understanding of underlying methods and principles of art making, and to support the development of the student’s independency. Hetsch’s teaching was also meant to give apprentices attending the elementary school of the Academy other skills besides that of being able to copy examples (Meldahl 1904, 216).

Even though copying was criticized and by the turn of the century completely abandoned (following the words of Meldahl (1904)), it was not formally forgotten by the beginning of the 20th century. However, a more flexible education system was gradually applied, breaking with, paraphrasing the words of professors Kræsten Iversen, Aksel Jørgensen, Vilhelm Lundstrøm and Sigurd Wandel, the stiff, spiritless way of teaching and the mindless copying that previously had been the norm (Det Kongelige Akademi for de Skønne Kunster 1946, 165). This didn’t mean that the study collections became irrelevant, but the way they were used changed into an interchanging between classical and living form. Despite of the criticism of copying, study collections of various kind were still valued and items acquired.

In many ways study collections were very much relevant and used in teaching at the academy until the 1960s and 70s. When the schools in the latter half of the 20th century more or less abandoned the compulsory lessons in anatomy, proportion, and perspective, the direct use of the historical study collections consequently waned significantly. Later digital media and new forms of distribution and easy access to reference material have also directed the focus away from the physical objects towards intangible forms of references.

Object-based learning

It may of course be trivial to point out that engaging with objects is very much a part of art education and has always been so. But opposed to looking at objects as forms to be copied, drawn after, or inspired by, the principles of object-based learning connects objects to experiential and student-centered approaches to learning. This means that objects are not just objects, but part of an active hands-on discovery learning system, in which knowledge is produced and distributed.

Object-based learning follows the idea that knowledge is constructed by the learner in a process of experimentation, experience, reflection, and conceptualisation (Kolb 1984), as opposed to something external passed on from teacher to student. It combines experiential learning with constructivism, emphasizing the importance of engaging with actual, physical objects. In essence it is multisensory and breaks with the separation of cognitive and embodied knowledge, traditionally linking education to linguistic, aural, and visual learning (Thomson, Hannan, and Chatterjee 2016). However, object-based learning is not done just by handling objects, but needs to be organized around a set of teaching methods activating the mind in the process.

The principles of object-based learning have found a natural development in the museum and gallery field (Paris 2002). They are often linked to teaching children, but more recent studies examine how object-based learning can be used in higher education (Thomson, Hannan, and Chatterjee 2016). At the University College London (UCL), for instance, extensive research has been conducted examining how students can enhance their learning with the use of museum collections. Holding large public collections UCL has a unique position to promote and make use of objects in their education programmes6. Also in London, at the Central Saint Martins University of the Arts (CSM), a similar approach to object-based learning has been examined, exploring how the historical collections at CMS Museum and Study Collections can regain relevance and support modern pedagogic practices.

Investigations into the art academy collections, with a focus on object-based learning, definitely points at a new way of using the study collections, but it also underlines the importance of the actual physical objects in the collections - not only from a heritage or art historical point of view, but also as necessary components in a complex learning environment.

The Sculpture Garden. Photo by Mads Kullberg
Mads Kullberg (DK) holds a PhD on the topic of safeguarding and documenting ephemeral art and cultural heritage. His research as New Carlsberg Foundation research fellow at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Visual Arts revolves around organization, management, cataloguing, and use of the academy’s collections.


Det Kongelige Akademi for de Skønne Kunster. 1946. ‘Beretning, Det Kongelige Akademi for de Skønne Kunster (1940-46)’. København: Det Kongelige Akademi for de Skønne Kunster. http://www.kunstbib.dk/.

———. 1949. ‘Beretning, Det Kongelige Akademi for de Skønne Kunster (1946-49)’. København: Det Kongelige Akademi for de Skønne Kunster. http://www.kunstbib.dk/objekter/KAB01/C11500ti_1946-49.pdf

Frederiksen, Nanna Kronberg. 2017. ‘Bestillingen Til Kunstakademiet’. Arkivet.thorvaldsensmuseum.dk. https://arkivet.thorvaldsensmuseum. dk/artikler/bestillingen-til-kunstakademiet.

Jørnæs, Bjarne. 1970. ‘Antiksalen På Charlottenborg’. In Meddelelser Fra Thorvaldsens Museum, 48–65.

Kjerrman, Pontus, and Kunstakademiet. Billedkunstskolerne. 2004. Spejlinger I Gips. 2. oplag i.e. ny udgave. Kbh.: Kunstakademiets Billedkunstskoler.

Kolb, David A. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Lange, Julius. 1886. Kunstakademiets Afstøbningssamling, Renaissance- Skulptur, historisk Fortegnelse. København: P.G. Philipsens Forlag.

———. 1891. Kunstakademiets Afstøbningssamling. Antik Skulptur. Historisk Fortegnelse. Tillæg.

Meldahl, Ferdinand. 1904. Det kongelige Akademi for de skjønne Kunster 1700-1904. Kjøbenhavn: Hagerup.

Paris, Scott G. 2002. Perspectives on Object-Centered Learning in Museums. Routledge.

Salling, Emma, and Claus M. Smidt. 2004. ‘Fundamentet. De Første Hundrede år’. In Kunstakademiet 1754-2004. Bind I, edited by Anneli Fuchs, Emma Salling, and Det Kongelige Akademi for de Skønne Kunster, 23–117. Kbh.: Det Kongelige Akademi for de Skønne Kunster.

Svenningsen, Jesper. 2017. ‘En National Samling På Tegnebrættet: Centre for Indsamling Af Danske Tegninger 1810-45’. Perspectives. http:// perspective.smk.dk/en-national-samling-pa-tegnebraettet-centre- indsamling-af-danske-tegninger-1810-45.

Thomson, Linda, Leonie Hannan, and Helen J. Chatterjee. 2016. ‘An Introduction to Object-Based Learning and Multisensory Engagement’. In Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education, 15–32. Routledge.

Zahle, Jan. 2003. ‘Afstøbninger I København I Europæisk Perspektiv’. In Inspirationens Skatkammer. Rom Og Skandinaviske Kunstnere I 1800-Tallet, edited by Ragn Jensen, H., S. Söderlind & E.-L. Bengtsson, 267–97. Museum Tusculanum.


  1. The Royal Cast Collection (Den Kgl. Afstøbningssamling) was established in 1895. In the initial years the cast collection shared a building with the newly established National Gallery. Docent Julius Lange from the Art Academy became the first director of The Royal Cast Collection. The casts were exhibited on the ground floor of the building. In the 1960s the collection was put in storage. However, the collection regained attention and in 1984 it was moved to and put on display in Vestindisk Pakhus (Zahle 2003, 278). [return]
  2. After the teaching was discontinued, the collection was handed over to the School of Sculpture. Evidence of this transfer is found on the back of a print depicting anatomic proportions (by Michelangelo Buonarroti) on which Poul Holm Olsen wrote, “Kunstnerne ophører med anatomi, alt overgår til Billedhuggerskolen, hvor interessen er stor. Holm Olsen, 9. nov, 1965” (The artists discontinue anatomy, everything is handed over to the School of Sculpture, where the interest is great. Holm Olsen, Nov. 9, 1965). The print itself was previously donated to the School of Anatomy from the academy library in 1935 (confirmed by Hjalmer Friis, also on the back of the print). The School of Sculpture thus possesses a range of books on anatomy, teaching materials, boards, and several skeletons, most likely inherited from the anatomy classes. [return]
  3. A number of casts have been deposited to other institutions. In the 1960s, 70 to The Museum of Ancient Art (Antikmuseet), Aarhus University, from the 1990s and to today, approximately 30 to The Royal Cast Collection. (Kjerrman and Kunstakademiet. Billedkunstskolerne 2004, 307) [return]
  4. Docent Julius Lange (1838-96) made and published the first inventory of the cast of antique sculptures in 1866, and 20 years later, in 1886 and 1887, after the casts had been moved to the new exhibition building, he updated and supplemented the inventory with the casts of renaissance sculptures that had been added to the collection along the way. (See Lange 1891, 1886). [return]
  5. This collection was handed over to The Royal Collection of Graphic Art (Kobberstiksamlingen) in 1845 (Svenningsen 2017) [return]
  6. See: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/schools/teaching-object-based-earning (accessed March 19, 2018) [return]